Published on: Wednesday, October 25, 2017

In Darnell Mason v. United States, No. 15-CF0305 (D.C. Sept. 28, 2017), the District of Columbia Court of Appeals issued an opinion holding that, “[s]tanding alone, the belief that the criminal-justice system is systematically unfair to blacks is not a basis to disqualify a juror.”  The Court explained, “that belief is neither uncommon nor irrational.  Moreover, there is no basis for an inference that potential jurors holding that belief are necessarily unable to be impartial.”  In support, the Court cited 2013 research from the Pew Research Center indicating that 35% of all adults and 68% of blacks believed that blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the courts, as well as decisions from other courts on the issue.

Further, the Court devoted a significant portion of its opinion to whether the erroneous removal of a juror for cause based on their beliefs warrants reversal, noting that there is a circuit split and federal-state court split on this issue in the non-capital context.  Mason, Slip Op. at 16–17 (citing United States v. Brooks, 175 F.3d 605, 606 (8th Cir. 1999) (reversal not required where trial court abused its discretion in disqualifying potential juror for cause where no actually biased juror was seated); United States v. Padilla v. Mendoza, 157 F.3d 730, (9th Cir. 1998) (similar); United States v. Salamone, 800 F.2d 1216, 1227 –29 (3rd Cir. 1986) (reversing where trial court in firearms case erroneously disqualified juror for cause a juror and five potential alternate jurors solely on ground that they were associated with the National Rifle Association); King v. State, 414 A.2d 909, 913 (Md. 1980) (similar).  In the end, the Court reversed the defendant’s conviction.  The Court reasoned that the defendant was not required to demonstrate prejudice in order to obtain reversal because the “erroneous disqualification had a tendency to ‘unacceptably skew the jury in favor of one side.’”  Importantly, because the excused juror’s “beliefs are more commonly held by black potential jurors, her exclusion on the basis of those beliefs, though not reflective of intentional discrimination on the basis of race, could create concerns about the fairness of the judicial system.”        

The Training Division provides materials on strategies for litigating race in federal criminal court and on jury issues.